In 1862, Father William Corby probably performed the most famous instance of General Absolution in the history of the United States. According to the Wikipedia entry for the Battle of Antietam:
Leading off the fourth attack of the day against the sunken road was the Irish Brigade of Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Meagher. As they advanced with emerald green flags snapping in the breeze, a regimental chaplain, Father William Corby, rode back and forth across the front of the formation shouting words of conditional absolution prescribed by the Roman Catholic Church for those who were about to die. (Corby would later perform a similar service at Gettysburg in 1863.) The mostly Irish immigrants lost 540 men to heavy volleys before they were ordered to withdraw.
Paul Wood’s famous 1891 painting “Absolution under Fire” of the scene also has an interesting story of its own.
However today the Church in common with much of humanity is facing a different type of war. I am writing from Ireland where parishes have been more or less shut down by the Coronavirus response. In many other countries Masses have been canceled and I imagine that these shutdowns will increase over the coming days.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law allows for General Absolution under very defined circumstances, and the practice has been very frowned upon by many of those in authority. I personally greatly value the Sacrament of Reconciliation and I do see a great value in the opportunity to personally approach a confessor and individually confess my sins. However, I think that we are rapidly approaching a situation which fulfills the requirements of Canon 961:
Can. 961 §1. Absolution cannot be imparted in a general manner to many penitents at once without previous individual confession unless:
1/ danger of death is imminent and there is insufficient time for the priest or priests to hear the confessions of the individual penitents;
2/ there is grave necessity, that is, when in view of the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors available to hear the confessions of individuals properly within a suitable period of time in such a way that the penitents are forced to be deprived for a long while of sacramental grace or holy communion through no fault of their own. Sufficient necessity is not considered to exist when confessors cannot be present due only to the large number of penitents such as can occur on some great feast or pilgrimage.
2. It belongs to the diocesan bishop to judge whether the conditions required according to the norm of §1, n. 2 are present. He can determine the cases of such necessity, attentive to the criteria agreed upon with the other members of the conference of bishops.
I know that there is no more of a priest shortage today than there was a few months ago. Yet in many areas people are afraid to approach their priests. Another consideration that we ought to think about is that many priests in the Western World are of an older generation and are the ones most at risk from the Coronavirus. Admittedly some areas (such as Italy, Spain and France) are under complete lockdown and not even General Absolution is possible. But in many places it is still possible to have smaller gatherings inside and slightly larger ones outside as long as people keep a safe distance from each other.
Canon Law tells us that it is for the bishop to decide if the requirements for General Absolution have been met. Admittedly there are many other aspects of General Absolution that could be discussed from a legal, theological and pastoral point of view. But I don’t think this is the moment for these discussions. Yet it is a moment when I believe that bishops should be seriously thinking of granting their priests the opportunities to impart this form of the Sacrament. There are other things that we can and should be doing, many places may still have the possibility of individual Confession, but surely it is in our best interests to deploy all of the sacramental weapons that we have at our disposal, including General Absolution.